Last Wednesday four sea turtle conservation groups announced the intent to file a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over their non-compliance with the Endangered Species Act. In the letter, which gave the service a 60 day period to act, said the federal agency was in violation of sections seven and nine of the ESA.
The conservation groups have focused their accusations on fishing activities in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Southeast Atlantic Ocean, where allegedly 45,000 sea turtles die every year due to shrimp trawling. The conservation groups have expressed wishes for the service to end trawling, or netting, throughout the 60 day process.
According to the letter, the National Fisheries Service, what the EPA calls an”action agency,” is in violation of section seven whereby any agency under the ESA must promote conservation efforts and be subject to inspection by “expert agencies” to ensure the safety of critical species and habitats.
The National Fisheries Service is both an “action” and “expert” agency, giving it the freedom to consult within itself, if a concern were to be voiced. Such as concern was voiced in November 2012, requesting the agency inspect shrimp trawling, a practice which traps sea turtles underwater and drowns them.
The agency’s own consultation handbook says concerns must be reviewed within 90 days, and within an additional 45 days, obtain an outside biological opinion, a total of 135 days. It has been 451 days since the initial report, and the agency has not produced a biological opinion.
The lack of doing so fails to enact a provision in the ESA requiring the agency to ensure their practices are not harmful. Conservation groups additionally say the agency is in violation of section nine whereby federal agencies are protected from legal action for performing what is known as “take.”
“Take,” according to the ESA, is any activity that results in the trapping, hunting or killing of a species. Agencies are permitted to “take,” but only in agreement from a biological opinion. The agency has been accused of “take,” and lacking the biological opinion is in violation of the ESA.
Groups taking part in the legal action include Oceana, Sea Turtle Conservatory, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity. While these four groups have publicly committed to litigation against the National Fisheries Service, their angst does not stop there.
“NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has known…the number of sea turtles…being killed in the Gulf,” said Eric Bilsky, an Oceana attorney, “since the spring of 2010. And.. coming on the spring of 2014, ‘We’re working on it’ is not enough.'”
While conservation groups are quite serious about the lawsuit against the National Fisheries Service, the response they received lacked sensitivity to the sea turtles. The president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Clint Guidry responded to the letter in an email saying two words, “NOT GUILTY.”
Guidry said in a phone interview that the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in the Gulf, is doing all it can. He cited a report from 2013 which concluded that sea turtle nest numbers have grown by almost 8,000 in the last five years.
Guidry is is citing evidence due to the implementation of TEDs, or “turtle excluder devices,” which help prevent turtles from drowning in shrimp nets. But conservationists say the National Fisheries Service uses TEDs only in limited instances and without enforcement.
The sea turtle conservation groups await the end of a 60 day period allotted to the National Fisheries Service to initiate the lawsuit.
By Erin P. Friar